Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Preaching To The Choir

By Jay Stringer

I don't think about marketing all that often. I've written about my aversion on here before. It's not a lack of confidence, it's simply that I don't want to get sucked into doing that at the cost of my writing. But there are important issues that will jump into my head, set up camp, and start a picket line in front of my attention span.

One of these is 'preaching to the choir.'

I've been bugging everybody with it. My agent. Friends. Co-writers. That guy who lives in the back of my fridge. I called up a woman who was my teacher when I was six years old, just so that I could whisper "preaching to the choir" at her and then hung up. Creepy, I know, but these things need to be done.

I was talking to some of my favourite British writers last week and found out that they're having similar thoughts. Well, not about the old lady thing, I can't back that one up with facts.

Here's my basic question;

What do we do, as writers, to expand beyond preaching to the choir?

8 of us come here to blog about crime fiction. We have a blast. We enjoy writing the site and engaging with readers, just as we hope you folks out there enjoy coming to the site and engaging with us. The christmas noir in particular showed us how many people out there are not only enjoying the site, but are willing to get up and show it. So none of this is an attempt at biting the hand that feeds.

The online crime fiction community is a wonderful thing. It's full of some of the most friendly and supportive people on the net. Just look around at all the various crime blogs, ezines and message boards, and you'll see this community coming out in force, commenting, supporting, reviewing and buying.

But where do we find the new readers from? And can we sustain ourselves as writers in this modern age by relying on the already established community?

Lets take a look at comic books.

Once upon a time (cue music) comics were sold in their millions on news stands. Mothers, fathers, uncles, kids, total strangers who wanted to win your affection; all of these people could and did pick up comics as they went about their daily lives. They could be impulse buys, purchases of convenience, but they were out there on the news stands and thousands of new readers were sucked in. It's cigarettes and drugs, baby. But then the direct market was created. It was hailed as revolutionary, hailed as the decision that would take comics into the new age. They vanished off news stands and were sold direct to specialist comic stores.

And then the industry started to die.

Some comic stores are brilliant. In fact, the majority of comic stores I've been to on both sides of the Atlantic have been filled with helpful people who want to talk about the product with passion. (special mentions here to Nostalgia & Comics in Birmingham, England, and to St Marks Comics and Jim Hanley's Universe both in Manhattan.) But the very idea of going in a comic book store is intimidating to a lot of people. Parents aren't always sure they should let their kids go in, and parents themselves might not want to go in and get lost amidst all the thousands of titles, or to ask at the counter for fear of getting laughed at HIGH FIDELITY style.

The very act of sending the product direct and only to these places limited the market. The industry was now preaching to the choir. You could sell comics to people who already bought comics. To get in new readers? that was alchemy. In the early 1990's there were a few titles that reached the magic number of selling a million copies, now the bestsellers tend to be between 20-80,000. And this is an industry with a leg up. Marvel, Sony, Warner Brothers and Paramount have been releasing billion dollar blockbusters based on these characters for years. There are toys, cartoons, video games and lunch boxes. But the sad thing is that The Dark Knight didn't save the industry. Iron Man didn't save the industry. The new readers aren't flocking into the niche stores to buy new comics. And those that are coming across are going on Amazon and buying trade paperback collections of the classic stories from ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

Everyone who was cool when I was a teenager was watching Batman: The Animated Series. But a generation later talking to these cool people is likely to get you, "Well everything I know about Batman comes from the cartoon." Because the cartoon was their version of Batman. Just like the films. Like the toys. Like the lunch boxes.

Where does the industry get new readers?

Am I saying that crime fiction is in that trouble? Nah. Not nearly. We've not gone down that direct market blind alley.Crime specialist bookshops are wonderful places, but they're essentially there to cater to geeks like us, and they're not the only place for a generation of readers to buy crime books.

But the fences are there. In the general bookshop itself it's already a case of preaching to the choir as far as the people willing to walk into the section marked 'crime.' It's at the front of store that we find the casual readers, the new readers, and they're at the whim of whichever books are on promotion unless there's a great bookseller around to leave blocks of cheese that lead to the sections.

On sites like AMAZON the key is to get your title onto that bit that says, "other people who bought this title also bought..." But the trick is to get onto that list in the first place.

We all, writers and readers, need to be expanding our net, widening the conversation. But how do we do that?

When my book comes out, it may well have some great blurb from some great crime writers. But does this help? As much as I love reading the likes of Bruen, Rankin and Pelecanos, I don't think I'll pick up a book and think, "well I was gonna spend my money on food, but if these guys say I need to read this book..."

Those if us in the crime fiction community already have our tastes, we already know how to tell if we want to pick up a book, and we know whose opinions we trust. That's what this whole net community is about. The blurb isn't really going to make a difference -unless you guys tell me otherwise.

Ian Rankin is a mighty fine writer and I don't for a minute mean to say anything else. At the same time, how much of his Uk-dominance is down to the fine content of his books, and how much is down to the fact that the national newspapers give decent coverage to his new titles. Big reviews. Press. National radio. National TV. People who weren't even sitting there thinking, "what book will I buy this month" are suddenly sitting there thinking, "they tell me that Rankin book is good to buy."

So lets take the principles of social media. Let's get out there and expand. Find people who aren't going to walk over the section in the book marked "crime," or who may not even be in the bookshop in the first place.

I give SCALPED regular love on here, and you should all be reading it by now. It's the best comic on the stands. It's a noir-tinted crime drama of addiction, betrayal and duty, all centred around an angry young man from an ethnic minority. Which, incidentally, is pretty close to the pitch for my debut novel, OLD GOLD. Scalped sells bout 11,000 copies a month. You can bet I'll be nagging Jason Aaron for a blurb. My story is set in the midlands, which is the stomping ground of film director Shane Meadows. Hell, why not.

Why aren't we out there chasing blurb from the guys who make the million dollar crime movies, or the actors who play sexy mobsters on TV?

What could a Ray Banks novel do with some blurb from Billy Bragg or Ken Loach. What would benefit our own Russel Danger McLean more, a blurb from a top British writer, or a blurb from Dundee's very own Brian Cox? Which is more likely to get someone of similar leaning or tastes from another 'community' to think, "well, I'll give this guy a go."

So that's whats picketing my brain at the moment.


Dana King said...

Be careful what you ask for. Invite too many mainstream readers and the industry ill push for more water-down crime fiction to keep them coming back. Demographics are like heroin to a business. Once they have them, they'll never willingly give them up.

The way to see how to draw new readers is to interview the choir. Ask them (us) what got them interested in crime stories in the first place, and what is it about crime stories they like. The advertising industry is all about convincing people to want their product. I wonder how much time and effort might be saved by asking people what they want.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, Dana makes a good point. Though I don't always know what I want.

MJ Rose has a post up about social media as marketing:


Lately I've started to think that maybe the best way to get people interested in your writing is to make sure your writing is available - flash, short stories, novellas, novels, whatever.

John McFetridge said...

Well, if you're looking for blurbs from actors and other celebrities, have a look at this.

Jarrett Rush said...

I agree with John here on the last part. The best way for people to know about you and your writing is for them to read your writing. It's why I'm going to try and get myself out on more sites and in more places.

But, I have to say, I agree completely with the idea of preaching to the choir. Friends and supporters are great, and just having them back you can lead to a certain level of success. But if you want bigger success -- and I think most of us do -- we need to reach the people many of us won't just naturally find ourselves in front of. I recently published a novella and sales the first three weeks were great. Then I tapped the Facebook/twitter/relatives market. Sales slowed to a trickle. I've spent the last five weeks trying to meet other writers and other people who I didn't know before. Spreading my reach. Doing what I could to get in front of new readers.

One thing I've realized as I get deeper and deeper into this writing thing, is that there are many, many cliques. Crime writers, pulp writers, independent authors, others. All of them are very welcoming and supportive. I've yet to have anyone not make room for me at their table. But it's easy to forget that there are other tables out there and other people eating. And while it may be very satisfying to be at the table you're at, you've got to get up and mingle. Shake some unfamiliar hands. Meet some unfamiliar people.